Oct 2, 2014
Michigan Tree Fruit Commission, MSU forge agreement

Maintaining infrastructure needs at the state’s agricultural research stations will be a top funding priority for the newly established Michigan Tree Fruit Commission (MTFC).

Meeting for the second time since the organization’s establishment earlier this year, MTFC board members in late August signed a five-year letter of agreement at the Clarksville Research Center with Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, MSU AgBioResearch and MSU Extension.

Growers approved MTFC in a March referendum; 72 percent voted yes, representing 81 percent of tonnage produced by the state’s apple, cherry, peach and plum industries. The Michigan Apple Committee, Michigan Cherry Committee and Michigan Processing Apple Growers will provide administrative functions – including collection of assessments – for MTFC, which falls under the auspices of the state government.

“Coming on the backside of some very difficult years, for the industry to rally after we had to make some tough decisions and do some things that weren’t lots of fun – when you go through some of the types of cuts and things we went through a few years ago – you find out who your friends are,” Doug Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch, told the board of nine growers, who signed the agreement along with three university officials.

“Those of us of here from MSU clearly feel like we’re among friends today, and that really means a lot,” Buhler said. “We’re really looking forward to working with this group to see how we can move things together to continue to build a partnership to do the type of things to keep the industry where it needs to be.”

Buhler credited the tree fruit industry for stepping up to move research efforts forward.

“We really appreciate the recognition that the work has to go on, and the times have changed,” he said. “Some want to hope that whatever we think were the good old days are going to come back, but I don’t think they are. I think these are the new good ways of doing things together.”

Cherry grower and retired Extension educator Jim Nugent, MTFC’s board chair, said it was essential for MSU’s leadership to buy into the organization’s concept before it could be promoted to the grower community.

“On behalf of the industry and the tree fruit commission, we really appreciate the positive leadership of MSU from all of the administrators,” he said. “We knew that to be successful we had to have a good relationship and understanding with the university and I think the memorandum of understanding is basically exactly what we asked for and the university said ‘we can do that.’”

The agreement stipulates that the funds collected by MTFC “will be used in partnership with MSU to address infrastructure needs at the fruit research stations, as well as fund research and Extension priorities set by MSU and MTFC.”

The pact makes it clear the MSU entities “will not use MTFC funds to replace or reduce current funding levels for Michigan tree fruit research and Extension positions and programs.

With an estimated $780,000 budget, based on anticipated collections from the checkoff approved by growers, about $425,000 (60 percent) of that will be used to maintain infrastructure at MSU’s four research stations – primarily orchards, buildings, roads and machinery. Another $250,000 will be spread between research projects and Extension/outreach activities. There will be a first-year fund reserve of $93,300 established, with a stipulation that funds be spent within a year of their collection.

Of the $779,800 to be generated in the first year, apple entities will contribute $436,800; tart cherries $243,000; peaches $20,000; plums $5,000.

Underway are efforts to entice the Michigan Legislature to provide matching funds “to provide a new public/private partnership to address critical tree fruit research needs.” Discussions also will take place to secure in-kind contributions from industry support organizations, such as equipment and supply companies.

Emphasis on infrastructure

Addressing concerns that some growers may not yet fully understand that MTFC funds will be used primarily to keep the research stations strong from an infrastructure standpoint – and not as much for direct research grants and projects – Nugent stressed the “need for dollars at the research facilities to keep competitive.”

Although the priorities may focus on such needs as facilities, expanded orchards, roads and personnel, Nugent said MTFC isn’t precluded, for example, from supporting urgent research work to preserve a particular aspect of fruit production in the state.

However, “I don’t see as our primary role” funding specific research projects that are more likely to be supported by commodity-specific groups, Nugent said.

“We want to be nimble and flexible enough that we can address emerging needs,” Nugent said. “You aren’t going to get a grant to do brown marmorated stink bug research if you don’t have a population of them in the orchard.”

Buhler said examples of infrastructure project support could include funding the costly establishment of new varieties and planting systems within orchards.

“It’s very helpful for me to hear this,” he said. “The whole goal is for us to maintain the infrastructure that’s needed to do world-class fruit research.”

The group has a tentative meeting schedule that will rotate among the four research stations, in order to receive firsthand feedback and updates from station personnel. Plans are to establish a proposed project list based on those discussions.

The next meeting will take place Dec. 3 at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in Benton Harbor.

Gary Pullano

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